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The Kids Aren't All Right

by Brittany Olson, WFU Rural Correspondent

Anyone who knows me knows I talk about mental health a lot. It wasn’t until after my first panic attack in elementary school that my dad told me he had panic attacks, too, and how my grandpa would get them every time he was signed up to give communion at Mass. He vividly remembered Grandpa, the strong and silent type, hyperventilating into a paper bag on the porch.

Part of Grandpa Statz’s deal was that he didn’t exactly love being in front of people as much as he loved being Catholic, and part of it was a lifelong battle with anxiety. Like a lot of farmers, Grandpa was hard on himself and internalized stress. Nobody talked about it back in the 1960s and 1970s, though, so Grandpa suffered in silence.

I also got a little older and realized that alcoholism ran rampant on both sides of my family, likely as a means of temporary escape from anxiety, depression, and dysfunction. My dad, who has been sober for four years now, lost one of his brothers to cirrhosis when I was six; the cows left shortly before Uncle Dave died. My first registered Jersey was named Heather after Uncle Dave’s first Jersey.

I think about Grandpa and my uncle a lot when I’m milking cows…and when I talk about mental health, too.

My family isn’t alone, either. We all know how our profession has one of the highest suicide rates of any industry, and the stigma around mental illness in agriculture leaves many farmers and agriculturists battling their demons all by themselves.

While farms are great places to raise offspring, what with all the sunshine and fresh air and animals and wide-open spaces, they can also be dangerous for the offspring of farmers – mentally as well as physically. We live in a very stoic culture that doesn’t like to admit when something is wrong, and we like to ask for help even less.

Preliminary results from year one of a five-year University of Illinois-Extension study are unfortunately proving that the kids are not all right.

The first year of data is showing that 60 percent of both farm adolescents and their farmer parents are living with at least mild depression, and 45.1 percent of farm adolescents are checking the boxes for generalized anxiety disorder (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023). So are 54.9 percent of their parents (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023).

The study, coauthored by Illinois Extension specialist and UI agricultural and biological engineering professor Josie Rudolphi and Marshfield Clinic Research Institute analyst Richard Berg, used the Family Stress Model developed in the 1990s in Iowa after the 1980s farm crisis to investigate the connection between economic conditions and farmer mental wellbeing.

“Most of the work on farm stress and mental health is primarily focused on adult farmers. However, it is important to recognize that children are fully aware of what’s happening on the farm, and they are not immune to the stressors that exist. That is the inspiration behind this project,” said Rudolphi in a UI press release in June of 2023.

122 farm families (represented by one adolescent and at least one parent from each family) from across the United States completed an online survey in the summer of 2021 after being recruited by mail, email, and social media (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023). The majority of parents and teens involved (58.2 and 70.5 percent, respectively) were male, and the average ages for parents and teens participating in the survey were 41.4 years and 15.4 years old (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023).

While study participants rated their own mental health as excellent (31.1 percent) or good (50.8 percent), their self-reported symptoms using standardized patient health questionnaires told a different story: 60.7 percent of adolescents met criteria for mild depression with another 22.1 percent qualifying for moderate depression (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023).

On the anxiety side of the fence, while the overall numbers for farm adolescents living with anxiety were lower than depression (45.1 percent), 60.7 percent of adolescents self-reported symptoms of panic disorder and even more (67.2 percent) reported symptoms of separation anxiety disorder (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023).

The economic measure correlating most closely with parent-depressed mood was debt, and having a depressed parent was closely associated with the kids experiencing anxiety and depression (Rudolphi & Berg, 2023). To put these numbers in perspective, what’s the percentage of the total American population living with mild to moderate depression?

About 20 percent, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

While additional research is needed to dig deeper into the frontier of farm adolescent mental health, it’s abundantly clear that the kids need support and resources just as much as their parents do when their mental health is suffering at a rate three times that of their nonfarm peers.

Those who perceive their mental health as good to excellent – like over 80 percent of the farm families in this study – are less likely to seek out mental health care despite their minds and bodies saying the exact opposite (Rudolphi and Berg, 2023). Even if they wanted to, finding mental healthcare providers that are either in-network or somewhat affordable if paying out of pocket is comparable to a blind squirrel in pursuit of a nut.

To interject personal experience, I spent over a year on a waitlist before finally getting in to see a therapist somewhat locally. A lot of life happened in that year, too, like remodeling a barn and a silo fire and having a baby with a traumatic birth.

The disconnect between perceived mental health and actual mental health also warrants further and continued conversation among farmers and ranchers from a social and economic standpoint, as well.

Have we been so gaslit and Stockholm syndromed into accepting that ‘this is just the way it is’ that we don’t realize we’ve been living with chronic anxiety and depression until we realize our kids are suffering along with us or one of our fellow farmers kills themselves?

What can we do in the meantime? We’ve certainly got a lot of work to do by both improving our own mental health, and helping our kids work through their challenges now that we know they aren’t immune.

Like a lot of things, it all starts at home.

Farms are great places for kids to grow up, and I’m not knocking the value of having responsibilities and developing work ethic, but it’s entirely too easy to overload them with more chores than they’re able to handle.

Some responsibilities are just too heavy for a child to shoulder even if they’re farm tough. If they tell you they’re struggling, believe them. You know your child better than anyone.

We can model good mental and physical health for our children by taking care of ourselves, too: eating well, making rest a priority when and where we can, moving our bodies, communicating wants and needs with each other, having quality time with each other outside of chores, and unapologetically loving our families for who they are as human beings (not just what they offer to the farm).

And, when we finally realize something isn’t right and take the leap toward seeking help for our own anxiety and depression, our future farmers will see that too and realize it’s okay to not be okay – and that it’s okay to ask for help – and one more brick in the wall that is the stigma around mental health will come crumbling down. Our children are always watching us and looking to us for answers as they navigate the world around them. If we aren’t all right, chances are the kids aren’t all right, either.

Maybe, when the current generation of farmers begins to prioritize their mental health and thusly breaking generational cycles of anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma – we will have also improved the mental health of the next generation of farmers and our high suicide rate will be a thing of the past.

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